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Scott Morrison, December 2004

"5/5 stars

Another Winner from Scherbakov/Liszt/Beethoven

I had not expected to like this recording as much as I had the earlier CDs of Konstantin Scherbakov playing Liszt's piano transcriptions of the Beethoven symphonies, and indeed the first time I listened to it I found

myself really missing the soloists and chorus in the last movement. But the second time through I found that I could set that aside and listen to it as a PIANO performance, not as a substitute for the 'real thing.' And my goodness, this is spectacular playing on Scherbakov's part! And that is particularly so in that last movement because of all the musical events that come racing pell-mell after each other, often on top of each other.

The adagio, as the earlier reviewer stated, is simply ravishing, and frankly I heard things--inner voices primarily--that usually get covered up in orchestral performances. I followed throughout with an orchestral score and am simply amazed not only how Liszt was able to include almost everything, but at Scherbakov's ability to bring it out.

Thumbs up."

Peter J Lawson
MusicWeb International, December 2004

"Don’t fall into the trap of considering this an eccentric curiosity! This is an expert reading of an almost completely convincing transcription of one of music’s most seminal masterpieces: so, a splendid CD of a great (but little known) piano sonata!

The truth is that many composers sketch their material - certainly their first ideas - without being clear about its eventual ‘destination’ or scoring. And in the course of working on that material, it doesn’t necessarily change significantly simply because it’s assigned to this or that instrument, or because it finds itself in this or that context. Handel, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert and Beethoven all published pieces in two (several more, in some cases) instrumentations. Even Ravel, that most resourceful of writers for the orchestra, published arrangements or rather reincarnations, for piano which in no way betray their origin: indeed, we can’t always be sure which he penned first!

For this reason, it could be said that 90% of Liszt’s transcription is as pianistic as it is orchestral: and there’s very little erasing or modifying of detail for the sake of the new medium. The problem’s the remaining 10% - but rest assured, it’s not a big problem!

Quite often, left and right hand have to deliver contrapuntal ideas an octave or two apart which, in Beethoven’s score, are separated by tone colour, wind versus strings, for example, rather than by pitch. But this arrangement usually works well, and, let’s be honest, sometimes even better - more clearly - than the original. Of course it’s not often that Beethoven gives us an idea which is uniquely orchestral anyway. You could cite the isolated bars of timpani in the scherzo, the mysterious string ‘tremolos’ (but they’re not tremolos: they’re measured sextuplets) in the opening pages, or the military percussion in the finale. These are the only disappointments. You may miss the voices, especially solo voices, in the finale: but, if you’ve made the necessary aural adjustments, you may not! And there are advantages: the hair-raising discord which prefaces the first vocal entry is far better balanced on the piano than it is in the orchestra!

On this recording, Scherbakov is meticulous in differentiating by means of articulation between one idea and its counterpart, so hearing superimposed lines isn’t a problem for us, despite the nominal lack of tonal contrast on a supposedly-monochrome instrument. Occasionally, sustained, especially high-lying or slow-moving, melodic material loses its sense of line when transferred to the piano, given its decaying sound characteristic. But of course the same is true of ‘genuine’ piano music: it’s one of those everyday problems the pianist has to deal with. Liszt himself almost never glamourises Beethoven: when it sounds more like Liszt than Beethoven (those multiple unison octaves of the opening movement?) it’s usually purely coincidental!

I must say I’ve admired everything Scherbakov has done for Naxos to date. He’s got all the artistic and technical credentials to bring this, and most other programmes, off, and seems to have immersed himself in this music. It’s a remarkable achievement.

Think of it this way. Forget Liszt. Fancy instead a recording of Beethoven’s sublime Piano Sonata in D minor, Op 125 - his last, and by far his most substantial, for the instrument? Well, this is it: it’s cheap, it’s good, and it’s in a shop near you!"

Jed Distler, November 2004

"Liszt's Beethoven symphony transcriptions for piano solo demand the utmost in technique, stamina, and musicianship--perhaps in the Ninth most of all, where the soloist must assimilate the solo vocal quartet and choir music in addition to bearing the orchestral burden. By and large, Konstantin Scherbakov has what it takes to meet Liszt's cruel demands head on. In contrast to Cyprien Katsaris' effective emendations of Liszt's text in the name of orchestrally inspired sonority and dramatic impact, Scherbakov is a purist by comparison. He trusts Liszt's "de-orchestration" as written, and for the most part wields a lighter, more incisive, and suppler pair of hands over the symphony's course than Leslie Howard on Hyperion.

Granted, Scherbakov doesn't balance the first movement's opening tremolos and descending motive with Katsaris' evenness and control, yet he still makes the swirling passagework sound deceptively easy. While Scherbakov takes trouble to nail the Scherzo's motto dotted figure more perfectly than anyone else on Earth, he works too hard, and the movement's whirling momentum runs itself into the ground. Fortunately, the Trio is lithe, long-limbed, and gorgeously voiced. Taking the Adagio at a brisk basic tempo typifying many period-performance versions, Scherbakov's coolness and control circumvent the deeper lyricism and tonal ripeness Katsaris finds.

In the Finale, Scherbakov's careful layering of solo/tutti and vocal/instrumental perspectives, and his tightly knit tempo relationships vividly unify this movement's disparate parts. In other words, he never slows down for the sake of accommodating his hands. . . All told, this is an admirable release . . ."

Patrick C Waller
MusicWeb International, October 2004

"This superb disc is number 21 in Naxos’s projected series of Liszt’s complete piano music. Given that Leslie Howard’s Hyperion series (to my knowledge, the only one that is yet "complete" although he keeps finding more to record) ran to 57 volumes, some with multiple discs, this still has some way to go. I mention this because, in one of life’s coincidences, the discs in the series I have acquired previously are numbers 7 and 14 (respectively containing Rossini transcriptions and Bunte Reihe transcriptions of music by Ferdinand David), both of which were also excellent.

But, hang on a minute, this music certainly doesn’t sound like Liszt and, of course, it isn’t – it’s Beethoven. Although I have been aware of Liszt’s transcriptions of his symphonies for some time, this is my first experience of them. I approached the disc with several questions in my mind: Why did Liszt transcribe them? Why, when I can easily choose between recordings by Klemperer, Karajan, Böhm and Zinman, should I want to listen to a piano version? Even if I am interested in piano transcriptions of Beethoven’s symphonies, should I really be starting with the Ninth?

I would presume that Liszt was motivated to produce his transcriptions as a vehicle for his own performance and to increase the possibility of their performance more generally; although they would only ever be accessible to great virtuosos. My initial reason for wanting to listen to this was curiosity but I will re-listen in the future because the experience was much more compelling than I had expected. It made me think afresh about a work I thought I knew well. Each time I have listened to it I have marvelled at Beethoven’s music, Liszt’s conception for the piano, and Scherbakov’s musicianship and virtuosity.

My feeling is that the difficulties of playing the 9th Symphony on the piano must increase progressively throughout the work. The first movement is relatively straightforward compared to the scherzo, for which there is an incessant rhythmic challenge; despite this Scherbakov takes all the other repeats except the last one. In the adagio the difficulty is obviously not one of hitting the notes but conveying the feeling normally imparted in the string writing. Sensibly Scherbakov adopts a relatively fast tempo (although the duration of 12 minutes is similar to Zinman, Böhm takes about half as long again) and yet he convincingly conveys the spiritual essence of the music. But all this is nothing compared to the finale! As this began, I was really sceptical. Hadn’t Liszt thought of bringing at least a tenor along with him? Can a piano really sing like four soloists and a chorus? Of course it can’t but Scherbakov’s piano sings for all it is worth and the words went round in my head. The experience was quite different but still a rich broth rather than a consommé. Scherbakov handles the various contrasting sections of the finale with the same skill as a great conductor and he brings off a magnificent conclusion. The fantastic glow that you should feel at the end of this work was just as intense as ever.

Second time round, listening to this disc with the orchestral score was an interesting experience. The most striking thing was how many of the notes are in the piano version, a very high proportion and certainly all the ones that matter. Curiously though, there seems to be a small cut in the scherzo of eight bars just before the last repeated section (at 9’52" on track 2). This section (on page 133 of the Dover edition of the score) is played on all the orchestral versions mentioned above. Essentially it is a repeat of the opening eight bars of this movement. I don’t know whether Liszt, Scherbakov or Naxos is responsible for the omission. It would be surprising if it were Liszt because this short passage is so straightforward that even I could transcribe it for the piano (you couldn’t say that for more than 99% of the rest of this work!) although perhaps these bars were not in the edition of the score he used. Whatever the explanation, I raise it as a point of interest and do not feel that it detracts significantly from his truly magnificent rendition of this movement.

The recorded sound is not absolutely top-drawer and the piano initially seemed a little harsh in tone (this is not entirely inappropriate at the beginning of this work) but my ears adapted. The booklet is rather disappointing – no need here for a biography of Liszt, rather some more detail about the transcriptions would have been appreciated. But, for me, given music-making like this, these are minor considerations.

There is competition, both from within Leslie Howard’s complete Liszt series and also a complete Beethoven symphony transcription set by Cyprien Katsaris (see link to review below). Obviously, I haven’t heard these discs (yet) but, regardless of their merits, Scherbakov is worth hearing as well.

I am glad I started my piano transcription experience with the Ninth because it has made me want to explore the rest of the series. Apparently Scherbakov has already recorded three discs including the first six symphonies (see links to reviews of two of the discs below) and these are already available. I shall be looking out for these and the rest of this series, whatever their place in Naxos’s grand scheme. I shall also await volume 28 with anticipation - perhaps it might contain some original music by Liszt?

This is a magnificent disc and listening to it is a truly uplifting experience."

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